Roof Hike
(Dreamed in my early twenties.)

By Dolores J. Nurss

Here we sit on the stone bench beneath the bougainvillea, breaking up dead twigs and sprinkling twig-bits on the sidewalk in front of us. Real exciting. A blossom falls on Merrill's head and looks garish against the black hair. I brush it off roughly, saying, "Looks like you're bleeding."
He smirks, says, "Life of adventure, Don," and continues to torture twigs.
Life of adventure, right. It's not fair--he at least looks suited for adventure, somehow, with that green light in his eyes even when he's bored out of his little brain. It's unfair because I keep reading these myths from "my" people (because the teachers say I should "get in touch with my roots", not like I care) about tall, blonde adventurers, yet there he sits, dark-haired and small and he's got it and I don't, with my horsey face and narrow body no matter how I work out, no matter how "tall and blonde".
Adventure--fat chance! I can't find a good class till evening and I've read so much today even I'm sick of it, and my stupid boat leaks and I can't get caulking till Saturday. No mood to repair it, anyway. Deirdre called from Novo Durango, saying she and Randy planned to play "Missionary Doctor" after school; if we did it at the same time it'd be like we played together. I didn't bother to tell Merrill--stupid little kid game, why should I say anything about it? And then we looked through all the theaters, concerts, all that stuff, and it all slanted to everyone else's tastes. Oh, I wouldn't mind seeing one or two things, but not the same one or two Merrill wouldn't mind seeing, and who can you talk to about it after if nobody else wants to hear how it ends?
Besides, I don't feel like just sitting and watching something...yet here I sit, not watching anything but my fingers as they break off little bits of twigs. Always a bit different, Merrill now peels off strips of bark and braids them. The braids look like something come out of a sick dog.
Good tilanitos never get bored. I can think of a dozen funner ways to be a bad tilanito--none of which seem feasible at the moment.
"We could go on a hike," Merrill says.
"Huh! Where? Anyplace far and I'd never get back in time for trig."
"Trig? How come you're in trig and I'm still in algebra?"
"Maybe because I'm in-trig-ing." He gives me this sneer that says "Uh-huh!" the way only a handsome kid can do to an ugly one. I snap at him, "Hike where, Merrill? We can't get anywhere in my boat, anyway."
"Don, Don, you think the whole world begins and ends at the ocean!" He grins suddenly, like he's up to something.
"Well, doesn't it?"
"We could explore the Institute itself."
"You could." You could get away with murder, Merrill; grownups eat your grin like kiwi-creams. "Me, I always wind up trespassing somebody's unmentionable privacy or something, underfoot and yelled at."
"I can think of a certain obvious way not to get underfoot."
"A way to trouble--I can feel it. Sometimes I think that if I'd never met you I'd never have gotten yelled at in my life."
"Don, friend, you're thinking two-dimensionally! Who'd yell at us up on the roofs?"
I blink at him a couple times. "Merrill, did you just say what I think you did?"
"Sure--you haven't gotten afraid of heights, have you?"
"If not it's 'cause I'm an idiot. Merrill, I just got my arm out of the cast!"
"Think of it like riding a horse. When it throws you, climb back on."
"I'm not scaling any more cliffs for you, whatever you say."
"Did I say one word about cliffs?"
"Cliffs, walls what's the difference? I told you then and I'm telling you now: from now on gather your own gull's eggs!"
"Now, what's the use of a friend with a longer reach if he won't do me a favor now and then?"
"Look, I'm sorry I teased you about being short..."
"...but I said nothing about gull's eggs, either."
"I meant it metaphorically," I say through clenched teeth--a theatrical trick I've been practicing. It doesn't impress him a bit.
"Last time we didn't get any eggs, metaphorical or otherwise. But this time...besides, you enjoyed the climb itself, didn't you?"
"Until I fell. Remember what Beowulf said?"
"That you ought to be ashamed of yourself for letting me dare you into these things." He claps me on the shoulder and stands up. "Very well, be wise, my friend. Enjoy a pleasant day ruining dead twigs"
"Stop smiling at me like that!"
"How should I smile?"
"Not at me! Don't look at me like that!" I throw a handful of twig-bits at him. "They ought to make a new paranormal category: mesmerists. You don't do what you do naturally, Merrill."
"Or maybe you're just gullible." He keeps smirking, blast him! I don't have to take this. I get up and walk away. I get a good dozen steps along before I find him keeping pace beside me in that bouncy step to match my longer legs, grinning like a Mardi Gras mask.
"That looks like a good, scalable wall over there," he says as he veers towards it. The mason decorated it by setting bricks angle-out every so often; one could climb up it by cramping up one's fingers and toes real tight for little, tiny ledges. He goes straight up it with the temerity to not even glance over his shoulder to see if I follow or not. As soon as he makes room I find that my hands clamp on the roughness of bricks, my legs push me farther and farther from the ground.
"I really am an idiot," I mutter. I hear a giggle high overhead.
"Not far now," he calls down. "Wait...I'm there already."
I don't dare look up or down. I keep shoving myself upward till his hand grabs my arm--I nearly flinched!
"Don't do that!" I gasp, this time through teeth clenched in all sincerity. But that doesn't stop another glad little giggle from him. He really does still have a little-kid voice--so why do I follow him?
"I'm just helping you up. Here, bend your neck you stubborn...see? Up here." I squirm to the top of a two-story wall. I pull myself up till I drape over it by my stomach. It's two handsbreadths wide and it domes treacherously. Over the other side I see the courtyard of a restaurant, with tables, chairs, and umbrellas.
"Is this really necessary, Merrill?"
"Sure--where's your adventuresome spirit?"
"At sea." He gets up and, with arms extended to either side, strolls happily along the wall towards the next one.
"It's round up here!" I shout after him. "You don't expect me to walk on something this round, do you?"
"Slide along on your butt, then, if it makes you feel safer."
Blast him. I totter to my feet. To stand makes the ground look still farther down. I stick out my arms. Whoa! There, I have my balance now...I think.
No wind. I have known winds to swoop out of nowhere, though, in this part of the country. I put one foot exactly, precisely, in front of the other, with no margin for error. I never did this good in fencing-class; maybe my teacher should take all her students for a field-trip on a wall--now there's motivation!
I reach the juncture, where Merrill waits for me. This wall, smoother than the last one, sides a building and offers no handholds. Merrill can just reach the top with his fingers, standing on tiptoe. He makes a tentative hop, nearly slips, grabs me and I slam us both against the wall, clinging and panting while my heart beats so fast it makes my head zingy.
"Gimme a boost," he says, "and I'll pull you up after." I consider the alternative and nod. I stand sideways so that both feet take the dome of the mortar in my arches, which at least gives some illusion of security. I boost the boy up, but the jolt sends a bolt of dizziness from my brain to my off-balance heels, sure that I'm gonna splatter on the sidewalk for certain this time. I don't. Blast and double blast!
"Okay, your turn." He leans down from the waist to hook both his hands under my armpits. "Give me a jump and I'll haul you up."
Jump? Is he serious? I guess he must be. Is he strong enough? He's smaller than me. Jump?
"Come on, Don; you wanna stay on that wall all day? I s'pose I could come back later if you feel that way, or maybe call our housemother some time when I climb back down again..."
I jump. I get this awful moment when my feet touch nothing, when I have no defense against gravity but the strength of a small boy's arms. Then my belly scrapes across the coping of the roof.
"There you are, my good fellow! Safe and sound." Not sound of mind or I wouldn't get dragged into these adventures. I slither till my legs have roof beneath them, then I push to my hands and knees and then, verrry carefully, I stand to see where we are.
"Merrill, this is fabulous!" I shout. "I can see the whole Institute from here!" The view of domes and spires, gardens and trees and towers and fountains and nooks and crannies nearly knocks me off my feet all over again, my heart a-prance in my chest. It floods my cheeks with blood and quickens my chest with eager breaths.
"Quietly, quietly," Merrill; murmurs with that smile of his. "You know how adults can get. Not all would like us climbing around up here."
"Then they can all hang themselves upside down!" The city of jewels, of toys, of moving living motes, stirs me to a painful pitch of excitement. "This, this is so terrific!" I tremble as I say it. "Listen, we're supposed to learn all sorts of ways to do daring and dangerous things anyway, right?"
"Oh, of course."
"This is practice."
He winks one bright green eye. "I knew you'd see it my way. Come along now."
Come along now. And just like that, I come. I have reason to believe that Merrill is younger than me. He's not stupid, in fact I find few people so satisfying to talk to. But he studies classes several steps behind me in everything but historical literature and hands-on problem-solving. And he's so much smaller, with his little kid voice, and while my voice may jump around a bit, it mostly hits on much, much deeper tones, and I know for a fact that I've got hairs (well, one or two) where he's got no more than a turtle. Then he says "Come along" and that's all it takes.
Our elders have it right, and the Novo Durango kids wrong. Age makes little difference. I'd follow him anywhere--over the edge, past the last buoys to mark the limits of my own best judgment. To the poisonous Earth, even, if he led me there. I'd curse myself for every step, but I'd follow. I'd never curse him, though. He has no psi-gift in him, but he's magic. He's magic.
The sky hangs down close, pearl-gray. No wind stirs that low an overcast. The roof shows the same shade of gray, with vents and pipes and things I don't know the use of sticking out from the flatness.
No, not the same gray--the clouds have a hint of color to them, particles of rainbow too tiny to pin down. Without a change in shade the clouds communicate their mistiness while the cement looks so solid. For a dizzy minute my eyes negate this and I feel myself walk on a roof as insubstantial as a cloud, the sky pressed down with concrete weight. Illusionist effect? Suggestibility?
We reach an edge, opposite the one we clambered over. Merrill drapes an arm around my shoulders as we gaze down on a world of miniature artistry that lives for our joy. Softly this time I say, "It's so beautiful, Merrill! Thank you for giving me this."
"It's my revenge for when you taught me to sail." Then he turns away. "But we're not done yet. This way."
"Not done? But we saw what we came to see."
"We came to explore, m'boyo. Seeing you can do anywhere." A pause, while he walks further and I hurry to catch up with his shorter legs. "You can see anywhere, anyway...anybody your age who sleeps with a nightlight.
"I haven't for years!"
"Then how come you got a private cell on the Big Kid's floor? Whatcha hiding, Don?"
My face burns, but I say, "How could you know what age I am, anyway? Or I might just be precocious, you know, unusually mature."
"I'll say," he chuckles, his eyes sparkling altogether too knowingly, but before I can sock him he says, "Here we are."
"Here. Ready for the next roof."
"That? But...but it slants!"
"You hope to travel the whole world with a level surface under you?"
"No, but..."
"Pretend it's a deck, tossed in a frozen wave. C'mon, Don, this should be old hat to you. It doesn't even move."

"It's different on dry land," I grumble. "At sea the ocean lives; you sort've listen to it, get a feel for what'll happen next." I peer critically over the edge. "Besides, there's a four foot gap."
"How far can you make it at the broad-jump?"
I stare at him. "Five's the best I've ever done in my life, Merrill."
"Do your best, then!" Midsentance he jumps, lands on all fours, skids a bit but then catches himself before he tumbles off. He gains his feet and hollers over, "The best I ever did till today was 4'4"!"
Oh brother. I have to, now. No, only an idiot would "have to". I can turn back now and...and face the climb down all alone. Blast you, Merrill. Was he this scared when I made him come out to sea with me the first time? Sure we did get caught in a little storm (I'd left my console off and paid more attention to teaching him than heeding the weather) but we came through all right and he didn't even get very sick.
I jump. I hit the shingles and not the pavement below, but they feel slick beneath me, lumpy and bruising as I slide across them. Now I stabilize, my heart pattering a drumroll for the next challenge.
"On your feet, my friend; you can't enjoy the view lying down." I make my lopsided stand. Nobody decks boats in shingles, pretend how you like. Merrill laughs gaily, then takes off at a skipping trot across the roof. It stretches on forever. He slips once, sends a shingle loose, but scrambles back before the shingle hits ground. He hurries on, excited now. I can only listen for that blasted shingle to hit bottom while I follow him more slowly.
Abruptly the angle shifts, port to starboard. I slam down on my belly and cling from my toes to the roots of my hair. I hear steps return for me.
"What's the matter Don? It's only illusionist effect. You've seen that before."
I glare up at him. "Not miles above the ground!"
"You must get over your habit of exaggeration." I force myself to my feet after him. Merrill, everything you do is an exaggeration. People make idle boasts of this sort of thing--nobody does it for real. Why must you?
We come to the end of our roof. The next building rises above it. The wall that faces us backs a sheltered walk, shielded by a trellis overgrown with vines. The trellis goes all the way to the top. It makes a neat effect; I've walked behind that living curtain before, the sun a-glow through the leaves like a stained-glass veil of green and yellow.
"Can you leap like a cat and cling?" he asks, his smile tight on his face, eyes shining on the danger like lusting for a lover. Is it all too pleasant for him to walk under that trellis like a normal person?
"Ohhh no, Merrill, this is going too far."
"Not far enough by a yard!" He leaps before I can object.
He makes it. He sticks like a spitball, exactly where he flung himself. Now he rustles through the foliage to scale the trellis like a ladder.
Each crisis leaves me someplace uncomfortable to wait. I can't spend the rest of my life squatting on these slates crying like a treed kitten. I leap after him.
Hoooollllyyyy cow! My arms wrench almost out of their sockets! Thorns drive into my hands--I never knew this plant had thorns. My teachers'd call that discovery by experience, something they hold by. I kick around in desperation till my feet find support. My heart crawls up my throat as the trellis-timber bends beneath me.
"Keep climbing," Merrill calls down. "Don't leave your weight on any one place too long." That rat. He knows he's lighter than me. I climb, the smell of bruised plants accusing me of mayhem against greenlife. Is this really necessary? The vine scratches me as I go.
Whoa! Some insect just ran up my sleeve! And I can't free a hand to do one blamed thing about it. Ohhhh, Merrill, are you gonna get it when I do free my hands!
I suddenly find myself in shade. The blasted roof overhangs. What now, climb down? I admit it, I hope so. Then I see Merrill, leaned backwards at a nerve-rending angle, locked suggestively with a gargoyle of the female harpy kind. He crawls right over her as the handiest thing to get him past the cornice. Anger twists her face; her mouth gapes to scream her outrage while he uses her breast for a handhold. Bad choice for her--now he shoves his foot in her mouth to hoist himself over her head and between her bat wings. This is fascinating.
This is stupid. I'll climb down right now, while I have the chance. miss the chance to embrace a harpy and live? Live's debatable, fool! Hustle down this minute. Yet already I twine my arm around the harpy's waist and I follow up over her.
She's a stone-hearted, cold old creature full of filthy habits--she keeps a dirty old bird's nest in her mouth and her breath smells like guano. This is not to say I'm not acutely aware of the drop that I not only climb above but lean backwards over. I sense it especially in the back of my scalp, my hair all standing at attention for vigilance.
"Don, look." Merrill hasn't even gotten to his feet yet. He crouches on his hands and knees in the gutter that empties into the gargoyle. He stares at a huge and utterly lovely, unspeakably blue old dome, each tile of it etched with a tiny gold figure, no two alike. I join the boy as he rises, dwarfed by the thing, I take the child's hand and stand beside him. Now we walk around it, to study every image.
"Look, here's an owl."
"Get a load of that detail! They've got the fletch of every feather."
"What's that, a unicorn? No--it has a dragon's head; it's a bagwyn--or is that the antelope-creature?"
"Here's a real dragon--nope, a wyvern."
"Here--I don't even know what they call that thing."
"How about that Kraken?"
"A squirrel. All these dangerous, mythic beasts, and they throw in a squirrel."
"Don," Merrill says at last, "Do you realize that we may be the only ones to've seen these for generations?"
"Centuries, maybe."
"Are you..."
"Yes. I'm glad you made me come. Thank you."

Dream notes: I most vividly remembered the dome at the end; for the rest I filled in a lot with imagination, but I know that the adventure involved exploring rooftops. I also vividly remembering having Don's elongated body. Upon awakening I thought, "But of course! They decorated that dome for the benefit of custodians cleaning out rain-gutters." But in the dream I felt like nobody had seen it for centuries except for Merrill and me.

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